The cops barely slow down long enough to hoof me out of the back of the wagon. The street is deserted save for the winos and the urchins pushing homemade carts stacked high with the salvaged scraps that make up their existence. I slip into an alley, watching the shadows. I imagine Roger hiding in the darkness, watching me with that hidden knowledge his eyes hold.
“He’s dead and gone.” I tell the darkness, but do I know that? I play the events over and over in my head. I see him there in front of me one minute and gone the next.
I never saw a body.
A drunk stumbles out of a doorway as I pass and for a brief moment I see him as Joe, his eyes blazing with red rimmed hate, his mouth twisted in a vermin sneer. He rolls off me and keeps moving toward the mouth of the alley in a stench of piss and stale booze. I shake my head, trying to clear it. I close my eyes, trying to feel any presence of Louise, but she’s gone silent again, leaving me to fumble through this on my own.
The tight space of the alley reminds me of the train yard, except this time I don’t even have my Webley for support. Tucked into my waistbands it sits useless and empty. Doyle saw it on the way over and gave me the same look a priest might give an altar boy he caught chewing gum until I showed him it was empty. He told me to keep my head until he gave the signal, but he never actually told me what it was.
I take a few more turns and find the familiar burned orange brick of the Chicago Club. A solitary light flickers against the darkness lighting up the dumpster and the old milk crate the bus boys sit and roll cigarettes over. I expect to see the usual assortment of busboys and dishwashers sharing a joke and a smoke, but it’s empty, not even an alley cat sniffing around the leftovers. I put my ear to the door and hear nothing on the other side, the usual muffled urgency of a bustling kitchen replaced by a crypt like silence. My heartbeat starts doing the rhumba and the idea this is some kind of trap oozes into my brain.
The alarm bells really start sounding off in my head when I find the door unlocked. I take a look behind me one last time to make sure I'm not being tracked by a sniper scope and ease the door silently shut behind me. Once inside all I can hear is the patter of drizzle against the steel.
Inside, the air is as tight as a piano wire. I don’t hear Doyle and his men so they’re either on their way, or halfway back to the station letting us mutts fight it out. The metallic smell of blood bites into my nostrils, and as my ears adjust to the silence I hear a soft moaning coming from the kitchen.
When I walk in there’s a kid sitting on the floor, his back propped against the oven, a red trail leading from the doorway where he dragged himself. He’s breathing heavily and eyeing the phone on the wall like it holds the answer to the meaning of life. A bandage is wrapped around one hand that hangs useless at his side. The other one is clutching his stomach trying to hold off a steadily spreading red stain that’s oozing through his white shirt.
It takes me a beat to recognize him as the poor kid that I hustled Roger’s money from. He sees me and lets out a wail that makes him sound like a wounded dog.
I’m on him fast covering his mouth and holding a finger against mine.
“shh kid shh. I’m not here to hurt you.” I said. His eyes accuse otherwise so I open Harry’s coat to show him. He looks directly at the handle of my Webley and his legs start pistoning and my hand muffles his screams, his head jerking from side to side playing percussion on the oven door. Smooth move Slate.
“I-I know kid ok, but look look it’s empty, see”. I take the gun out and show him the spent chamber. He eyes me with that same wounded doe look and winces as the stain on his shirt gains ground.
“We don't have time to waste playing patty cake, I’m going to take my hand away from your mouth and I want you to tell me what happened. Deal? I know you don’t know me from Adam, kid, but I need you to trust me just a little more here.” His eyes stop rolling and after a few beats he gives me the smallest nod. Slowly, I take my hand away ready to push it back if he decides to play hound dog again.
“Two guys come in here earlier today.” The kid started “I seen em before, wispy thin guy and his blonde mute buddy. They must have been casing the place for a while because they muscled by Charlie and came right into the cage demanding the cash box.” The kid swallows a gulp, his forehead starts to bead sweat and start thinking maybe he doesn’t have a lot of time left. I feel a strange sense of deja vu. Memories of my past life in uniform try to claw my attention away from the now and down a well of the past. I try my best to beat back my demons, but they are particularly vocal without a muzzle of bourbon. They retreat enough for me to focus on what the kid says as he continues.
“It was bedlam. Charlie ended up taking one to the chest. He was still kicking after they made off with the loot, but he was hurt bad. The guy who runs this place calls in a doctor for things like this. The kind who does what he’s told and doesn't ask a lot of questions.”
I started to piece the rest of the scene together before the kid could tell me. “My guess is this time around the Doc seemed a bit off.”
The kid surprises me by laughing.
“You said a mouthful buddy. This doctor walks in and goes loopy. He started shouting and shooting before pointing a gun at Mr. Colisetta and ferrying him into his office. So far as I know they’ve been back there ever since.”
I think I hear the sounds of shouting through the walls and tables being overturned. Maybe the cavalry has arrived, maybe it’s my wishful thinking. The kid’s gone quiet but his eyes haven’t glazed yet. I look at him searching for something to give him comfort but all I can come up with is a feeble platitude. “help is on the way, kid.” I nod at his busted wing. “Sorry about the hand.” On my way out I take the earpiece from the phone and crank the handle, making sure the kid can reach the earpiece from where he is on the floor.
Paintings hanging skewed on their piano wire in the hallway to Colisetta’s office. I see dent in the plaster where someone threw their shoulder into it, small nicks in the door where a key bit into it while trying to hit the lock. As I get closer I can hear the muffled sound of conversation through the door. One person’s slow and controlled voice mingles with erratic jarring clips of sentences from the other. I try the knob in my hand and it turns smoothly. I turn it agonizingly slow and feel a bead of sweat glide down my back. Whatever’s through this door, it’s for all the marbles.
I walk through the door and lock eyes with Sally Calls. I’ve dreamed of this moment in my lowest slumps. Imaginary arguments bolstered by bourbon, the Webley a useless prop in my hands, where I parade around the living room saying all the right words to finally get under his skin and see the terror and anger in his eyes, fear pouring out of him and sliding down his clean shaven cheeks.
When I see the Doc my throat dries out, my swallow catches. His face is bruised and there’s a nick out of one of his ears like Roger tried the direct route inside his head when all else failed. His cheeks are shadowed with days old growth and his eyes are brown orbs at the bottom of a bruised purple well. Starvation makes his cheekbones stick out like knife blades.
When he sees me, recognition ripples through his face and he sneers. For a second my vision doubles and I’m looking at Roger. I squeeze my eyes closed holding onto the memory of watching the tran bowl over him. I know he’s gone, but my gut tells me it’s not that easy. When I open my eyes both Sally and the Doc are looking at me. Both men mirror each other, their palms flat on the table. Colisetta is the Doc in reverse. His clothes are pressed and the white of his collar is bleached so white I almost have to squint. His three piece suit doesn’t have any pills or holes, he looks like he’s had a solid 8 hours of sleep. The thought of him sleeping soundly when my wife is in the ground because of him makes me grit my teeth and I push the thought away. It's dangerous to think of him as the enemy right now. It’s Sally who breaks the silence first.
“Somehow I know I see you. Anytime I get a pain in my ass I call it a Slate, because all the time you’re the cause of it.”
“Save it Sally, you might hurt my feelings, make me reconsider coming here.”
The Doc turns on me then. His eyes are cool and he has that same cocksure grin spread across his face I’ve seen on Roger; like a poker player with an ace stuffed up his sleeve waiting for the rest of the chumps at the table to play out their silly game so he can take the pot.
“You look a little worse for wear, glue crew. What is it you think you’re doing here? Think you can save this piece of trash in 4 seconds or less?”
The doc is sitting at a small reading table close to the door while Sally sits across the office behind his giant mahogany desk like a gargoyle perched on the precipice of a church. Behind him the curtains are open and grey clouds move across the sky in thick sheets. Sally’s blazer hangs over the back of his chair and I see the butt of a pistol hanging uselessly from a shoulder holster. Every few seconds Sally’s eyes flick to it. He licks his lips and I see one of his hands inch towards it. Carruthers starts to rise from his seat keeping the flats of his hands on the table and Sally immediately freezes.
“Don’t make me repeat myself Mr. Colisetta I absolutely hate having to do that. Not that you would know this, being a drop out, but as an educated man nothing gets my blood boiling more than having to repeat myself, except for maybe a pupil who refuses to follow instructions.”
Sally relaxes and so does the doctor. I take the time to edge closer to him trying to get a better understanding of the big picture. He notices me and that smug widens. Keeping his hands firmly planted he awkwardly sticks his body towards me. He’s wearing some kind of harness. It’s an ugly and dangerous thing that makes ancient warning bells in my brain scream at the hidden danger.
The hand grenades are easy to recognize because there’s four of them like identical black stones. The mason jars between them are filled with a sickly yellow powder that reminds me of the war. Amatol was like a curse among artillerymen, the scourge from the skies. In the centre of his chest a black fabric pouch has been sewn and I hear gentle metallic jingles as he moves and I can only guess at what it’s filled with. The pins of the hand grenades have chicken wire threaded through them leading to Carruther’s wrists. He’s got his hands on the table so if he has to push himself away from it he’ll move his body away from his hands and the pins away from the grenades. The thought makes me nauseous. Regardless of how much I’ve wanted to see Sally Calls suffer for what he’s done to me, no man deserves a death like this.
Maybe death isn’t what he deserves at all. The finality of it, the guesswork, death is escape. and I want Sally rotting in a prison cell where I can keep an eye on him whenever I want.
I reach for Harry’s handkerchief from the inside pocket of his coat and my hands brush something heavy and metallic before Carruthers raises his eyebrows and motions for me to get my hand back in his sightline. I show him one open palm and a handkerchief in the other. He seems to relax and I wipe my brow, my mind racing on how to save all of our skins, and how the pocket knife my hand just brushed is going to help with that.
Carruthers keeps the stink eye on me and something clicks for Sally.
“You know this doctor? maybe you can talk some sense into him then, he’s spouting nonsense, ever since he walk in here he spouts nothing but nonsense, gibberish.”
This riles something in Carruthers and he turns red faced on Colisetta.
“gibberish? gibberish! I’ll tell you what’s gibberish is that you blatantly break the law, take jobs from my countrymen, and piss on what this soil means just to take our hard earned money and send it home to your Pizonos. You’re like a tick bleeding a dog dry, you and the rest of your ilk. Bleeding this city dry until there's nothing left, and then what? you move on to the next host, like a goddamn parasite. Well I have seen enough. After today there is going to be one less tick bleeding out the city.”
Sally looks at me, his eyes barely hiding his desperation. In that moment I can see how small he is, a man from another land trying desperately to follow a simple conversation. His life hangs on his comprehension of simple English. I roll my shoulders, suddenly fatigued and sore at the narrative I’ve heard over and over again, hell, the narrative I participated in. Salvitore Colisetta is a man, plain and simple. Far from the untouchable God I've built him up to be. He’s a man who made bad choices. In my life he made an unforgivable choice, but it’s not up to me to pass judgment and dole out penance. That’s a burden not meant for any man, but especially not a dead man speaking hate through the medium of a puppet. It’s on me to stop this because I can. I have to stop this and let the powers that be sort it out. I have to face that I’m afraid of dying, but if I die stopping this, then maybe it’ll be worth it, maybe my wife will be waiting for me.
Carruthers has started more programmed blather. Maybe it’s the weariness in my tone, or my use of his given name that stops him, but from the moment I speak I have his attention.
“Victoria needs you John. She needs her husband back.” I see recognition falter in his eyes at the mention of her name. His brows lower and his pupils flick downward and the recognition catches. I see a flash of fear and capitalise, hoping to keep him off balance.
“You didn’t know who I meant at first, did you?”
“No.” His voice is small, barely a squeak.
“Who is Victoria, John?”
“Victoria Granville, my girlf-” He falters, his Adam's apple pistons up and down. His gaze grows soft. “Victoria Carruthers. my wife.” he’s whispering, talking mostly to himself. His eyes suddenly harden and Roger’s program is back. “Her father wants to steal my work! that louse never had an original idea in his brain. The Major knew, he could see it, and he helped me understand that going back to that bitch means surrendering my work to that old codger and living a submissive life of mediocrity.”
“Think about that John.” I said, taking a step forward. “Does that sound like something the woman who loves you would make you do? Or would the woman who loves you move hell and earth to scrape enough money together to hire a private detective to find you, insisting he clean up his act while on the case because she wanted results? think about her John, think about Victoria and tell me true if this woman would throw you to the wolves if you went back to her.”
I can see the gears turning behind his eyes. Logic fighting with emotion. I slide my foot forward, a plan forming.
Carruthers looks at me as if he’s really seeing me for the first time. “You? Victoria hired you?”
“That’s right.” I try a smile, edging closer. I can almost reach out and touch him, but I want to be sure I can close the distance, a few more inches that seem like kilometres. From behind his desk Sally Calls can only sit and sweat. worried to say the wrong thing and set the Doc off again.
“You don’t want to hurt anybody, do you John? You want to help people, patch 'em up.”
“I- don’t.” His tone is light and he looks around the office. His gaze settles on Sally Calls who averts his eyes, but too late.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone, but him? hell he’d snatch children from their parents if he could. Induct them into drug rings and have them running horse all the way to the train yards. Hell he might even get them hooked just to keep them docile. He’s a dangerous man and he needs to be stopped. I need to stop him.And I’m going to right now.” He starts to stand.
I’ve tried to push what happened next from my mind. Sometimes I’m successful. Other nights I wake up in the dead black of night with a scream barely contained in my throat and the sheets soaked in cold sweat. I move as fast as I can but it still feels like everything slows to a crawl. Like watching a picture show frame by frame. The Doc rises. His palms lift slightly off the table. The chicken wire tightens against the grenade pins. I take a step forward, my right hand lurching into the breast pocket. I pray I don’t drop the damn thing from shaking so much. I hear a click and I don’t know if it’s the blade of the knife, the pins of the grenades, or the hammer on Sally’s pistol that he’s drawn out of his holster. I spare a glance at him and notice the beads of condensation sliding down the window pane. I realise just how close he is. At this range, with his aim, he won’t miss.
Carruthers is almost standing when I slam the blade of the knife through his right hand pinning it to the teakwood tabletop. I step into it and put everything I've got behind my left fist, throwing it backwards into the Doc’s jaw. I see a red and raw fury behind his eyes, like a trapped animal watching death approach, before they roll up and I'm left staring into the glossy whites threaded through with red tendrils of exhaustion. I catch hold of his collar in both my hands and shout “Don’t!” fully expecting to feel the hot sting of lead catch me in the ticker and stop my pump for good. I crane my neck to look behind me and see Sally’s eyes trained on the door before I register the chaos of bodies storming through and shouting. I can hear a word being shouted over and over and it takes me a beat to realise I’m shouting “bomb” into the faces of Doyle and his boys in blue.
My foot slides in the Doc’s blood and for one sickening moment I see myself toppling over and sending us all to kingdom come. Instead, mustering some long gone grace, I get my foot underneath me and call for someone to cut the doc out of this goddamn death trap.
I watch, still clutching the doc’s lapels, trying to keep his head from lolling forward and covering the poor schmucks working on cutting him out of the thing. A medic works on stopping the blood. He shoots me a dirty look when I tell him I need the knife back.
Time seems to crawl but everytime I look at the big expensive clock on the wall the minute hand moves ever forward. I feel a hand on my shoulder pulling me backwards. I watched them cut the bomb off him but I can’t register that it won’t suddenly explode. I tell a young cop with sideburns not to jostle the amatol and he tells me he heard me the first two times. The grip on my shoulder increases until I take a step backwards. I turn around and see Harry.
“I just want my coat back.” He said, but he smiles when he does. A smile that evens out to a hard line as he looks across the room. I follow his gaze and see two uniformed officers talking to Colisetta, but so far no one is reading him his rights or snapping cuffs on him. I head starts pounding, you don’t have to be psychic to know there's a bribe in the uniform’s future. I shoulder my way between the two and wag my finger in his face.
“I won’t invoice you for the house cleaning, but you won’t see me back here. My debt is paid. Finito”
Sally Calls nods as if it’s his idea. “We gonna see.” He’s playing the part, keeping face in front of his paid off toys.
“Yes we will.” I said, meeting his eyes before bleeding back into the crowd.
“I owe you a coat, you owe me a coffee.” I told Harry. “Anywhere but Nancy’s.” I turn but he’s not following me. Instead he’s fixing me with a look, one I’d almost forgotten, his ‘yeah, but’ look.
“Yeah, but first you owe me something Percy. A stop we should have made a long time ago.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stand up.